DONETSK, Ukraine — Diana Berg and Ekaterina Kostrova were brought up speaking Russian, but in the past few weeks they have discovered in themselves a new sense of Ukrainian patriotism. Theirs was a vision of a united Ukraine, a country with “European values” but with close ties to Russia, a country where it does not matter whether you speak Russian or Ukrainian at home — because you can express yourself freely in either language.
Little by little, that vision is under attack — by men with guns and stone-hurling, stick-wielding mobs, by street battles and molotov cocktails.
“Most of us don’t want to be a part of the European Union, but we don’t want to be part of Russia either,” Kostrova, 23, said last week in the apartment the women share in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. “We just want to live in a united Ukraine.”
“We insist it is possible to stay in Ukraine, be ethnic Russian and speak the Russian language,” Berg said.
Kostrova describes herself as a writer. The 34-year-old Berg is a graphic designer. Both speak English fluently. Neither had any inclination to get involved in politics, at least not until gunmen took over their city and proclaimed it the capital of the new pro-Russian, independent Donetsk People’s Republic. There is talk of a “silent majority” in Donetsk opposed to the division of Ukraine, but Kostrova and Berg decided they could not remain silent.
“We could not go on, just passively observing,” Berg said. “We saw this catastrophe going on around us, and we wanted to do something. That’s why we gathered the first rally.”
“We asked ourselves, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” Kostrova added. “We felt a mixture of rage and anger and despair. We couldn’t understand why nobody was doing anything. So we decided to do something.”
What they did was set up a page on a popular social-media site here and invite people to join in a “grass-roots” rally for a united Ukraine. They expected a few hundred to attend. On March 4, they say, 2,000 people came. The following day, it was 10,000. They describe their supporters as “mostly educated, free-minded, critically thinking people.”
But their attempts at peaceful protest were met with hatred and abuse. Kostrova says her brother and cousins support the separatists and have posted insulting comments on social media about her. Berg said she has received death threats.
On April 28, they marched through the streets of Donetsk, joined by men, women and children, with flowers in their hair and Ukrainian flags flying high. They walked into a trap, attacked by hundreds of men who were wielding clubs and whips and carrying gasoline bombs, commonly known as molotov cocktails. Riot police stood by and watched. Some, Berg said, even joined in beating the marchers.
“We were beaten at our march just for having Ukrainian flags,” Kostrova said. “The pro-Russians who attacked us said we are fascists, but they burnt our flags and beat our people — so who are the fascists?”
The women fled into nearby buildings but decided that the city was no longer safe. On Wednesday, they decided to leave for the Black Sea port city of Odessa. “I got sick of being afraid for the safety of my own life,” Berg said. “Nobody is coming here to help us.”
The pair say they feel abandoned by the new government in Kiev, as well as the “Euromaidan” protesters who toppled the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych in February. “People from this region went to Kiev for Euromaidan, but now nobody there cares about what is going on here,” Berg said.
But her story took an ugly turn when she joined a pro-Ukrainian rally in Odessa on Friday, attended by thousands of soccer fans before a game that night, as well as ordinary citizens.
The peaceful march came under attack by hundreds of men armed with sticks and shields, some carrying guns and molotov cocktails.
But the soccer fans, the most organized and fanatical of whom are known as the “ultras,” were no pushover. A group of them, carrying shields and sticks and wearing helmets, had assembled to defend the marchers.
For hours, the streets of Odessa were the scene of running battles between stone-throwing mobs from both sides. Photographs show masked men using the cover of police barricades to shoot at the pro-Ukrainian side; three people were fatally shot.
Eventually, the pro-Russian forces were overwhelmed and fled.
That evening, pro-Ukrainian forces counterattacked, burning tents where some of the separatists had been camped and attacking a building where they had taken shelter.
Berg watched the attack unfold. She says the pro-Ukrainian supporters were fired on from the roof of a building but admits that some of them threw gasoline bombs at the structure. Flames enveloped the building. About 40 people died, choked by smoke or after jumping from windows in desperation.
Earlier in the day, Berg had been triumphant. “Odessa is ours,” she had said. But later, as she realized the scale of the tragedy she had witnessed, she was appalled.
“It is awful, it is terrifying. I can’t imagine how their families feel,” she said. This, she said, was not her vision of a peaceful, united Ukraine.
“But I see how violence causes violence,” she said. “It was a peaceful event, just Odessa citizens, and they were attacked. They just shot them with guns. It made people angry, and they decided to fight back.”
Berg says she and her family are receiving hundreds of death threats a day, with her address and photographs posted on Russian social-media sites alongside abusive comments. She wonders whether she will ever be able to return to her home town.